It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time: A Boy’s Journey Into The World Of Business
So I run a parenting media company called Fatherly, which is ironic, because I don’t have any children.
For those who don’t know, Fatherly provides product and service recommendations along with parenting insights from dramatically overqualified people — like, for example, a Navy SEAL captain on how to win hide and go seek.
People often come up to me and say “wow you probably know a lot about being a dad! How many kids do you have? And I say “none”. And they say “whoa that’s weird” and I snap “well Nickelodeon isn’t run by children!”
But running a parenting company as a single, non-dad is actually the most rational business endeavor I’ve pursued dating back to when I was 10.
Back then I thought I was a full-grown man. I had two successful lemonade stands the previous summer. I hit a home run in Little League earlier in the spring, so I felt really confident in my physical abilities. Plus, I fought a kid and think I won.
I didn’t know it at the time, but there were certain things I knew very little about.
Sex, for example, at age 10 was purely notional. It’s pre-The Talk, pre-The Internet and I didn’t have any older brothers. Well without getting into details, one feverish afternoon I discovered self-love and I knew I discovered a..miracle. With little knowledge of science, few to no street smarts and three days a week of Hebrew School, this revelation convinced me that I had unearthed some Dionysian delight unknown to anyone but me. Where there was once Moses and the Burning Bush, there was now Mike Rothman in the shower. I was like a character in some new New Testament, a god among us in a Jansport backpack who walked among the halls of Oradell Public Elementary school.
In ways that I only later would realize were deeply ironic, I walked taller.
But I couldn’t tell anyone. I was dumb but not stupid and knew enough that that whole region was still taboo. And what’s the use of being a god if no one worships you? So like any 10 year old coming up in the boom-boom 80s, I quickly said, I’m going to cash out.
It’s said that every generation thinks they invented sex but I actually tried to patent it.
In class, I learned from my teacher Mrs. Simms that you could create a Poor Man’s Patent by documenting your invention, sealing the contents in an envelope and mailing it to yourself.
So I invested two weeks collecting everything I knew from my investigations: diagrams, annotations on optimal angles, tracings, samples, even a glossary, with names like “pleasure measures’. I then placed the notebooks into a package and took the most incriminating letter anyone has ever trusted with the US Post Office and mailed it to 635 Blauvelt Drive care of Master Michael Rothman. And there it sat on my shelf, tantalizing me with the prospect of fantastic wealth.
Two weeks later on a Saturday night, I hosted a sleepover. And among pre-teenage boys, sex is the original fake news, but I learned enough that night to know: oh wow, not only did I not receive a miracle, but there is no business here and I’m really late to this party.
I freak out. The kids go home, the next day I tear the envelope, the diagrams, the glossary into pieces. I bring the pieces to the woods down the street from my house and light them on fire. My dream of licensing my discovery was dashed. There would be no audience with the pope.
By 22 I knew I was not a god but I still thought I was a real hotshot. I had started a magazine in college, and W Hotels agreed to circulate the magazine in their rooms and lobbies. They eventually pull out, and now I need a real, full-time job. I discovered a VP-level sales role at a niche magazine called Sound & Vision that reviews TVs and stereos. A much more senior salesman, a guy named Jack, was leaving and given my previous experience, I thought I was a shoo-in despite having had no formal training.
I barrage the publisher with voicemails. She finally agrees to chat over a 15-min call, I think it goes well and at the end she tells me “I enjoyed speaking with you and I’ll leave it to you to determine the best way to follow up.” I took this as a creative prompt. This was advertising. In New York. The Big Time. And I’m gonna come correct.
The next day I sneak into the magazine’s office at 7 in the morning through a service elevator with a custom cake that says “we’ll miss you, Jack” — I hadn’t met Jack, mind you — nor anyone else at the magazine — but I was destined to replace him and now I’m gonna win the office over with a surprise party to send him off right. I was going to add value off the bat.
I bring balloons, streamers and party supplies to hang up around the office. And the thing about balloons is, if you don’t have helium, and only have your breath and you don’t have your asthma inhaler, you get real dizzy, and all of the balloons will hang limp, but no matter, part 2 of my plan was yet to come.
Just in case breaking into the office as a non-company employee to assume familiarity with a guy I haven’t met, for a position I did not have didn’t seal the deal, I write a song called Sound & Vision to the tune of Foreigner’s Double Vision, about how I was the best possible person for this job.
I find a CD that played the karaoke version of the song, got a portable boombox and paid a guy in Times Square to dress up as a giant stereo and perform the song live at the publisher’s office. Because what’s a wad of sweaty 20s worth long-term when you’re going to be the Northeastern Regional VP at Sound & Vision magazine!
So later that same day, at around 2p, he rolls into the publisher’s corner office singing through his giant boombox head:
This year’s their year they’re going to push it to the limit
With ROTHMAN on board their going to grow their base of business
At the mention of ROTHMAN I burst through the door and step in front of my mercenarial boombox with a flourish of hands and a jiggly laser pointer as a dozen onlookers gathered to watch. In hindsight I thought the publisher did a pretty great job of playing it cool.
Not only did I not get the job but the publisher, who said she’d never been more humiliated, never wanted to see me in the building ever again. I was crushed, jobless and afraid that I wouldn’t, in fact, be able to work in this town ever again. Over and over in my head I kept hearing that sound a crowd makes when a golfer shanks a put, that wave of oooh! It was the sound of ego meeting reality. Maybe my college game doesn’t work in the Pros.
Fast forward again to 2014, I don’t have kids, I’m trying to raise money for Fatherly — that parenting company I wanted to start as a non-dad — and over 90 investors said, politely or otherwise, “go fund yourself.”
But the thing about rejection is that over a lifetime it still hurts but it no longer stings.
Well I keep going and after those 90 investors there were a handful that said yes and two years later Oprah says Fatherly is her favorite website and men all over the country send photos of our logo tattooed on their chest, arms and motorcycle helmets.
It turns out that not being a parent is actually an asset. It breeds a humility I didn’t have before, which makes it easier to distinguish between dreams and delusions of grandeur.
That magazine, Sound & Vision, ended up folding three years later.
Those amazing godlike powers I discovered in the palm of my hand? Now open-sourced and enjoyed freely by millions every day around the world.